Join the quest for the magical ingredient that makes beer sing

by Jason Foster


pintsIt’s been a while since we’ve talked about how you can transition from the crummy commercial beer you think you like into a similar, but oh-so-much-better, craft beer style that will blow your mind.

Let’s get back to that topic.

Mostly, we’ve been talking about specific beers, but this time around we’re going to look at probably the most important ingredient that makes so many of those awesome craft beers so much better than their mainstream equivalents: hops.

Hops are the final frontier in beer flavour and the thing from which many beer drinkers shy away. I get it: hops are sharp, bitter and sometimes puckering, so intense hop flavour isn’t for everyone.

But if you’re wondering why beer geeks love hops so much — and maybe why you aren’t into it so much — this column is for you. It probably won’t make you a hophead instantly, but hopefully it will give you a better appreciation of what hops have to offer to beer.

The first thing to know is that hops work their magic on two levels: bitterness and flavour/aroma. You’ll feel hop bitterness in the back of your mouth as the beer starts to slide down your throat, giving the beer that puckering character. The hop flavour and aroma, on the other hand, is something you’ll experience at the front and roof of your mouth. That flavour and aroma can vary greatly in character, from earthy or floral to spicy or citrusy, and some very specific and delicate flavours can come out of hop additions.

The first thing to do is isolate the experience of bitterness and hop flavour/aroma — and a good way to do that is to try a pale lager that’s had some extra hops added to its recipe. A useful example here is Big Rock’s Saaz Pilsner: it has all the cleanliness of a standard lager, but it also has just enough hop character to introduce you to the difference. (Try a Saaz and a Stella Artois side-by-side and you’ll see what I mean.)

Next, let’s move to a style that’s specifically designed to accent hops: pale ale, the original hop-forward beer. These days, pale ale needs to be balanced and not too hopping crazy, but back in the day it likely blew the minds of drinkers accustomed to porters, stouts and murky brown ales. A good starter pale ale might be St. Ambroise Pale Ale (usually only available in their mixed pack); the hops are actually fairly subdued, but they still show you how they alter a moderate copper ale.

A more assertive version, if you can find it, is Alley Kat’s Full Moon Pale Ale from Edmonton. It’s a great example of how to create definite hop character without being overpowering. Full Moon starts to give you a sense of the specific flavours that can be achieved from hops — in this case a sharp grassiness and pine character.

When you have handled those versions, take a stab at Mill Street’s Tankhouse Ale, which is more assertive in its bitterness and hop flavour. Showing a classic citrus hop made famous by west-coast brewers, it also has a noticeable caramel and toffee malt base to balance it.

If you’re okay with pale ale, you’re ready to make the jump to IPAs. Not all IPAs are created equal: some are more balanced, while others are unabashedly hoppy. Start with a Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (if you can find it — look in better pubs and beer stores). You might think it’s less hoppy than the pale ales you just tried, and you’d be right. It’s a classic British IPA, more about hop flavour than bitterness. (The beer’s floral and woody character is those hops speaking.)

The natural step from there is Paddock Wood’s 606 IPA, which has a distinct British malt base and an attractively earthy, piney hop flavour. The hop is noticeable but not overpowering, as 606 is inspired by British IPAs but ups the bitterness factor a little bit.

If you’re ready for some solid bitterness, there a number of solid options out there. Muskoka Mad Tom IPA has a strong resiny, citrus hop bitterness with a definite malt balance, while Hop City’s HopBot IPA is drier and more bitter, but with a piney, earthy character.

A final stopping point might be Phillips’ Amnesiac Double IPA from Victoria. Here’s where hops really start to dominate: a complex flavour of grapefruit, pine, passion fruit, grassy leaf and resin, it shows the variety in hop character, and then an assertive bitterness finishes off the beer.

If you survive the Amnesiac, you can legitimately call yourself a hophead. But don’t feel like you have to make it that far — just work your way along the list and stop where you feel comfortable, because there are no judgments here. But I can promise you that over time your hop threshold will shift, and beer that today seems too bitter might soon be exactly what you’re looking for.